- Lynching in America: A History in Documents
Christopher Waldrep, in a follow-up to his 2002 examination of the meaning of the word lynch (The Many Faces of Judge Lynch: Extralegal Violence and Punishment in America, Palgrave Macmillan), has now produced a collection of documents related to lynching in America ranging from 1820 to 1991. This is not what the casual reader might first expect—a series of detailed lynching stories, in the style of Ralph Ginzburg's trailblazing 1962 100 Years of Lynchings (Black Classic Press).
Waldrep is more interested, in this collection of letters, affidavits, trial testimony, judicial opinions, newspaper articles, and sociological and historical analyses, in exploring the rationale behind lynching as it developed throughout American history; how people justified them, and how courageous journalists and publicity—-not law enforcement—eventually began to turn the tide against lynching. Along the way, Waldrep attempts to explode commonly held beliefs about American [End Page 424] lynching—among them, that the practice was almost entirely an instrument of racist oppression against blacks dating from Reconstruction and the Jim Crow era, that slaves were seldom killed or "lynched" because they were valuable property, or that African Americans rarely resisted lynching. Documented tales of lynchings, according to Waldrep's study, reach back at least to the Revolutionary War era when mobs attacked Tories. A nation based on the principle that the laws derived from the people included many who believed that the people could take the law back into their own hands any time they wanted to.
Some historical figures emerge from this collection of documents severely tarnished. Andrew Jackson was an unabashed lyncher, as revealed in his own letters and in reports about his unceremonious 1818 hanging of two "hostile" Indian chiefs without trial and his brisk court martial and hanging of two British subjects who had aided and led Indians in war against Americans. Abraham Lincoln, however, survives as a champion of constitutionalism against vigilantism in an 1838 speech in which, writing about mob violence against abolitionists, he reminds his audience that, if laws are violated and mobs allowed to run amuck, in time no man is safe, white or black.
On the other side of the issue are moving exhortations by black journalists to their black readers to fight back and the inspiring 1890 story of Nelson Jones, a black man of south Georgia, who fought back against a mob and survived, despite being shot twenty-nine times. In 1902 John Mitchell Jr., black editor of the Richmond Planet, reviewing his years of struggle against lynching, comments that "protests against lynching have come from the gate-way to Hell, if not Hell itself—I refer to Texas" (p. 128), which might give the reader some notion of Texas's reputation at the time as a lynching state.
As Waldrep's shrewdly chosen documents proceed, the glib and comfortable rationalizations of the advocates and apologists for lynching stand in stark contrast to the stunned and angry prose of those who have seen the lynching atrocities and mob violence for what they are and insist on speaking the truth. In a final irony, Waldrep concludes his collection with Clarence Thomas's attack on the Senate Judiciary Committee for subjecting him to "a high-tech lynching" (pp. 268–269), in which Thomas cleverly employed a term that had come to carry great negative emotional weight and could no longer be rationalized under any circumstances.